The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are some of the leading causes of death among Hispanics. However, according to the 2005 National Health Interview Survey, Hispanic adults have the highest rate of being without a "usual place of health care," at 26 percent, compared with a national average of 15 percent.
Four organizations -- Howard County General Hospital, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, the Howard County Health Department and Alianza de la Comunidad -- joined forces Saturday in hopes of educating Howard County's Hispanic community on these facts and making a difference in a welcoming, relaxed setting.
"We're dealing with a population that is underinsured and uninsured a lot of the time, so health care has been a problem for a long time," said Viviana Simon, president of the board of Alianza de la Comunidad. "A lot of people will start to check something out once something goes wrong. So the whole idea of screening is important."
The third Latino Health Fair, a four-hour event Saturday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia, drew more than 500 people, said Cindi Miller, director of community wellness for Howard County General Hospital.
The county has 10,778 residents of Hispanic origin, according to the 2005 census.
Virnalisse Rodriguez, 34, of Columbia said that although she and her daughter had been to health fairs within the past year at Fort Meade, they rarely have information in Spanish. This event, she said, was a welcome change.
Emily Boulin, a community health advocate for Priority Partners health care, spoke to visitors in Spanish and English as she passed out brochures and applications and explained the company's services at length.
"A lot of the time, they're either misinformed or don't have all the details," said Boulin. "This gives them that one-on-one contact in a comfortable, confident environment."
Boulin was one of many bilingual representatives present. Other organizations and services had translators on hand.
"Language is usually a big barrier," said Simon. "Usually people are shy because their English is not all there, so the ability to approach people and ask questions in Spanish is important."
Among other services, participants had access to blood pressure screenings, dental screenings and colorectal cancer screenings.
Many of the participants were members of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church or knew someone who attended services regularly. The event was held in the interfaith center because many people are familiar with the building and atmosphere.
"Oftentimes they are foreign-born and undocumented, so it's important for them to realize that this is a safe place to come for information," Miller said.
Sara Bonilla of Columbia agreed that the location was key to the success of the event. "It gives a sense of belonging," she said, "that you're not alone and there are people like you in the community."
Bonilla, a mental health and substance abuse counselor at Mountain Manor Treatment Center in Baltimore, visited the fair to learn more about services available to her patients, but left with a reminder of her own health.
"It's like out of sight, out of mind," she said, speaking of the way many people view personal health. "People don't usually want to talk about it. Most of us don't even want to think about it."
Bonilla said that she was going to schedule a few routine medical checkups as soon as she got home.
Miller said the health fair is one way the hospital is reaching out to the Hispanic community in Howard County, along with offering information in Spanish and providing on-site translation.
The fair "lets them realize that we are a part of a community," Miller said, "and that there are all of these places that they can go to support themselves and their families."